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Thinking Outside the Quad

Thinking Outside the Quad

September 18, 2008

The notion came to me while I was on the phone with customer service for Citibank. I was walking across the empty quad trying to keep my cell squinched between jowl and shoulder, fiddling with the lock on my old leather valise -- my father’s, really, but he’s long gone. “Andy” -- "Amitava," more likely -- was having trouble locating a recent payment.

It was one of those piquant days at the beginning of the semester, the afternoon air tinged with coming cold. The quad felt bright and still. I had finished a summer of intense work on my manuscript, Neo-liberalism and the Global Lyric, and I was feeling good about my prospects for promotion. It’s not easy being a tenured radical. I have deans to appease and undergraduates to offend. Most of all, however, I have books to write, and that’s not so simple as senior colleagues make it sound. I am close to finishing my second, making me ripe for promotion to full professor -- in spite of Horowitz and his humorless ilk. I deserve it, having slaved away my virile years as an associate professor. But I’m not quite there yet. I have to complete that sticky chapter on Poetic License and Creative Commons. Then the index.

“Sir! You there sir? Very good, sir. No. I can find no record of a payment to Amazon of two hundred five dollars and ninety-five cents. You say it was for the collected works of Carl Max?”

“That’s Karl Marx, Andy, volumes one through six, and I distinctly remember making that payment. The old fashioned way. By check.”

“Very good sir. Please await the outcome of my patient inquiry while I put you on hold . . . “

I dropped my father’s valise and looked up, pasting the phone against my face. The quad was suddenly swarming with undergraduates. They surged out of classroom buildings, krill in colored T-shirts: muscles flexing, breasts bouncing, smiles flashing like newly minted money.

They were back.

I had to teach.

When would I find time to write another word?

“Sir, I am very sorry to report that despite my best efforts I cannot locate any record of a payment on the works of Carnal Mocks.”

“Andy I will consult my records. Good day -- if indeed it is day in Bangalore.”

I’d begun my day in gladness. Despondency and madness was right around the corner.

My book. My promotion.

These damn students.

Then it hit me.

Why not ship these students overseas?

Why not relocate higher education offshore?

I’ve read Friedman. I know the world is flat. I’ve heard the reports on NPR about the low cost of high-risk surgery in the developing world. If middle-class Midwesterners can fly to Mumbai to resection their large intestines, if phone calls from New York to Cincinnati can be routed through the Punjab, there’s no reason higher education can’t become a big-time player in the global economy. Colleges across America could take much better advantage of our flattened world with its telecommunications, capital flows, and transnational mobility, ridding their campuses of an unseemly physical dependence on students.

I could finish my book.

I spun on my heel -- Bruno Magli, size 9 1/2 -- and struggled against the tide of teeming flesh toward my office in Eliot. I wanted to fire off a memo to the dean with the idea hot in my head. I am lucky to have tenure, of course, and my joint appointment with the Department of Cultural Studies at least gives me a platform for interdisciplinary work. But as recently as a week ago our associate dean for alumni development and faculty research had urged a group of us associates, over buffet bisque, to “think outside the box.”

His words hit me like a headshot: “bring us your fresh ideas. We have the money to fund them, especially if they save the College money.” He spat the words out with a kind of breathless intensity. They rang in my ears as I stepped into my office, slipped my key back into the pocket of my blazer (Armani) and snapped open my MacBook Pro.

In the subject line I typed “Thinking Outside the Quad”.

dear dean squelch,

i’m writing with a bold new idea i believe can save the college large sums of money that might be better directed toward funding faculty research or alumni reunions. it fits perfectly with the new initiative announced last week by the associate dean for alumni development and undergraduate education to encourage all students to spend a semester studying abroad. while I fully support that proposal, it think it’s far too modest. why not push it to its logical conclusion? why not require every student in the college of the liberal arts to spend his or her entire undergraduate career studying abroad, preferably in the developing world?

i’m sure you can appreciate the appeal of this initiative (I call it the GLOBAL EDUCATION IMPERATIVE), but allow me to describe it in some detail. as i see it, there are several compelling reasons to relocate all aspects of undergraduate education offshore. the first is economic, and even if there were no other reasons (but as you shall see, there are!),this one would justify the whole initiative. we are all familiar with the regrettably uneven distribution of wealth across the globe. as corporations have been quick to realize but universities have not, this unfortunate fact produces a similar unevenness in costs of production. considered as a commodity, higher education requires the same outlays in labor and overhead as a pair of air jordans. it seems reasonable therefore to follow the nimble lead of the nike corporation and implement a business model that redistributes the cost of producing undergraduate education to offshore locations notable for low wages and property values. I would recommend india and malaysia. both are attractive for robust telecommunications networks and deteriorating but serviceable physical infrastructure, minimizing direct costs to home institutions for internet access and student housing. even including overseas transportation, the per capita investment in offshore education falls far short of current tuition levels, accruing to home institutions a handsome increase in revenue with absolutely no adjustment in price.

perhaps you worry about the costs of staffing so many courses at institutions abroad. that’s no worry at all, since it concerns only local managers of offshore venues. here too india and malaysia are prime locations, possessing vast and undercapitalized human resources. those countries swarm with educated persons reduced to selling trinkets on beaches or washing windshields at stoplights. they would jump en masse at an opportunity to pursue teaching as a vocation at wages quite attractive to home institutions. in the unlikely event of a shortage of qualified teachers in these locales, it would easily be remedied by our regular overproduction of graduate degrees, particularly among exchange students. such circumstances could mean job placement for a whole cadre of graduate students currently devoting untold years of their lives to professional prospects that we all know will never materialize. The GLOBAL EDUCATION IMPERATIVE will find jobs for them abroad, much to the delight of their spouses, children, and dependent relatives.

maybe the single most attractive aspect of global education today, however, is the effect it will have on undergraduates. they will be as well-rounded as they are well-traveled. they will be, in the noblest sense, cosmopolitans as they experience first hand the dynamism and energy of life in a developing country, its collective creativity in the face national underinvestment, the everyday struggles of its brave, brown indigenous people. it is impossible to put a price tag on character, of course, but this much is incontestable: four or five years of undergraduate education abroad will enrich the souls of our nation’s youth, preparing them through extensive personal experience to live as global citizens in a world that one day will be as diverse and as highly leveraged as america.

finally, an outcome that is no less a boon for being obvious: students who study abroad do not study here. they do not clutter our classrooms. they do not damage the grass. think of the savings of manhours and womanhours spent preparing lectures, advising students, leading discussions, grading papers, filing grades, managing complaints -- all the distracting inanities of undergraduate teaching. let them fall to the parochial ambitions of the offshore workforce. let us reserve the vision and energy of home institution faculty for the higher calling of research. it would be a truism to say that distinction in academic research correlates inversely to time teaching.

the GLOBAL TEACHING INITIATIVE will minimize the latter and maximize the former, with the inevitable result, desideratum of any dean, that most departments in the college of liberal arts will see a rise, possibly a precipitous rise, in nrc rankings. only undergraduates stand between an active research faculty and its full potential. they remain the vestige of an earlier, balefully nationalistic phase in the development of higher education. let’s step into the twenty-first century. let’s globalize higher education. let’s ship these students offshore and maximize profit and profitability. allow me to conclude with a vision of the future of higher education: campuses free of the beer-swilling spawn of an overfed bourgeoisie; faculties free to realize full productivity as researchers, writers, and public servants, and most importantly, students free to learn the ways of life in a world economy turned global quad.

I pushed the send button without even proofreading. That’s how confident I am. And that’s how enthused I remain at the prospect of a university without students. I’m not clear yet whether my Dean will adopt the GLOBAL EDUCATION INITIATIVE in toto, but she e-mailed me the next morning to arrange a private meeting. Her tone was not the usual faceless gray. Words like “innovative” and “luminous” peppered her message. I even detected a hint of administrative promise, or do I read too much into the phrase “future advancement”? Imagine. Me, the dean of alumni development and global education. I could do it. I could implement the vision.

I wonder, though, if I could serve in such an important capacity and finish my book.

Bio

Paul Youngquist is a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University. This essay first appeared in issue 70 of the minnesota review.

 

 

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